Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Next Up: The St. Louis Cardinals

Let me start out with a comment about the Dodgers, whom the Pirates swept in three weekend games. Last Thursday, I wrote, in describing the Pirates' outlook against Los Angeles,
Well, it's pretty obvious: To beat the Dodgers, you have to get to their bullpen. The problem is, to do that, you have to get by their starters.
I can't really take a victory lap for that prediction. Yes, the nine run seventh inning rally on national TV Sunday night was dramatic. But prior to that, the Dodgers bullpen had pitched seven innings and allowed just one run. The Pirates were able to get to Dodgers starters throughout the series. Dodgers starters allowed 13 earned runs in 15 innings, a 7.80 ERA. Dodgers relievers not named Jim Johnson allowed three earned runs in 8.2 innings, a 3.12 ERA.

Anyway, now we move on to a three-game showdown in St. Louis between the two teams with best records in the National League. The games tonight and Thursday will appear on MLB Network, with Wednesday's game on ESPN. The national cable networks will be hoping for a continuation of the series to date, which has seen the Cards and Bucs split ten games, with five going into extra innings. Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano will oppose Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn

How Are They Doing Lately? The Cardinals have played well all season. They're 15-8 over the past 30 days, the third best record in the National League, trailing only the 16-8 Cubs and 16-7 Phillies. (The Pirates, at 13-9, are fifth.) They've scored 3.9 runs per game, the sixth fewest in the league over the stretch, but they've given up only 2.7 runs per game, a full run per game fewer than the second-best team, the Giants. With that differential, you could make an argument---I wouldn't, but you could--that their 15-8 record understates how good they've been.

What's Going Right? The Cardinals story this year has been one of pitching. Over the last 30 days, the starters have a 2.57 ERA and the relievers 1.92, both the lowest in the league by a lot. Cardinals pitchers generate the most soft contact in the league. They don't have eye-popping strikeout or walk rates, but they obviously get the job done. There are a few indicators that suggest they may have been a little lucky over the past 30 days: second-lowest batting average on balls in play, highest strand rate (percentage of baserunners who don't score), second-lowest percentage of fly balls going over the fence. Outliers for those metrics tend not to last. Also, over the course of the full season, they've allowed an absurdly low .186 batting average with runners in scoring position. It seems I mention this every time I discuss the Cardinals, but outlier batting averages with runners in scoring position are not replicable. Much was made of the Cards' ability to hit with runners in scoring position in 2013, but here are their full-season averages since 2012: .264, .330, .254, .251. That .330 for Cardinals batters in 2013 was a fluke, as is this year's .186 for pitchers. Still, all these arguments are saying only that the Cardinals may not remain as outstanding as they've been so far. This is still a very good pitching team.

What's Going Wrong? The offense has been mediocre. Over the last 30 days, the Cardinals are 14th in the 15-team National League in batting average (.240), tenth in on base percentage (.311), and eighth in slugging percentage (.389). They've been the fourth-hardest team in the league to strike out, and when they make contact, it's been good: fourth-highest rate of hard contact and third-lowest rate of soft contact in the league. However, they've hit a below-average number of fly balls over the fence, and they're tied for the fifth-fewest stolen bases in the league over the past 30 days.

Who's Hot? Four players have carried the offense over the past 30 days, led by Rookie of the Year candidate and center fielder Randal Grichuk, who leads the team with a .671 slugging percentage and 19 RBI and is second in batting (.329), on base percentage (.389), home runs (7), and tied for second in runs scored (13). Third baseman Matt Carpenter leads the Cardinals with eight homers and fifteen runs scored and is second to Grichuk at slugging, .628. Another rookie, left fielder Stephen Piscotty, has a .328/.375/.431 slash line filling in for the injured Matt Holliday. Pending free agent right fielder Jason Heyward leads the team with a .338 batting average, .400 on base percentage, and seven stolen bases over the past 30 days while rarely striking out and sparkling in the field as he continues his recovery from a slow start (.251/.295/.379 slash line through June 9, .323/.389/.481 since). 

Let's just say this about the starting pitchers: Tonight's Cardinals starter, Martinez, has a 3.00 ERA over the last 30 days, while tomorrow night's starter, Michael Wacha, has a 2.88 ERA. Those are the two highest ERAs by Cardinals starters over the past 30 days. Same story with the bullpen: Left-handed specialist Randy Choate (12 games, 5.0 innings pitched, 21 batters faced) has a 3.60 ERA, and closer Trevor Rosenthal has a 4.50 ERA. (Since surrendering four runs to the Pirates in the two games prior to the All-Star Break, Rosenthal's got a win and seven saves in nine games with a 1.93 ERA). After those two, the third-worst reliever ERA on the club is that of Jonathan Broxton, another trade deadline pickup, who had a 5.89 ERA in 40 games with the Brewers this year but only 2.08 in his first five games as a Cardinal.

Who's Not? The infield, outside of Carpenter, has struggled of late. Over the last 30 days, shortstop Jhonny Peralta's hitting .221/.272/.395, second baseman Kolten Wong .208/.276/.292, and the first baseman tandem of Mark Reynolds and trade deadline pickup Brandon Moss .195/.303/.273. That's a combined .208 batting average, .283 on base percentage, and .320 slugging percentage for a third of the lineup.

What's the Outlook? The Pirates come into the series on a roll offensively, scoring an average of five runs per game over the last 30 days, second only to the altitude-enhanced Rockies. They'll need the bats to continue to perform at a high level against the best pitching staff in baseball. It's only the second week in August, but if the Pirates are going to avoid the coin flip that is the wild card play-in game, they probably need to take at least two of three in St. Louis, where they're 0-3 so far this year.

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